- Patriotism as Institutional Racism: The Purge and the Fugitive Slave Act
The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War (2011–2015) produced a surge of feature films about the conflict and its participants. Beginning with the early entry The Conspirator (2010) and highlighted by Lincoln (2012), Civil War films appeared regularly through at least the 2017 picture The Beguiled. Yet filmmakers of the sesquicentennial most directly confronted slavery and its legacy in an arresting cycle of films set outside the period of the Civil War. Such pictures spanned multiple genres, and included The Help (2011), Django Unchained (2012), The Butler (2013), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). An unlikely companion to these films is James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013), which casts the essential attitudes driving racial conflict into a grotesque present day in order to examine how these attitudes endure as both personal and political thought well into the early twenty-first century.
Civil War Film Culture
Scholars such as Jenny Barrett, Bruce Chadwick, Gary W. Gallagher, and Brian Steel Wills have written at length about Civil War cinema, from the late nineteenth century through the brink of the sesquicentennial. All acknowledge the multi-faceted nature of a genre that intersects with numerous film categories, from Westerns and historical romances to horror movies and science fiction. In Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten (2008), Gallagher traces the changing contours and content of Civil War cinema, beginning with the Lost Cause, a national mythology founded by former Confederates hoping to remember southern secession and defeat in the best light possible. Limiting or outright denying the role that slavery played in the conflict, the Lost Cause portrayed the South’s Civil War as a hopeless but noble contest waged in defense of sectional liberties and benign social customs. Worn down at last by overwhelming numbers and resources, this view argued, Confederates ultimately succumbed to a tyrannical Federal government bent on destroying the Constitutional principles established by the Founding Fathers. The “Lost Cause narrative” was enormously popular in the South during the late nineteenth century, and a modified version – emphasizing sectional reconciliation and white supremacy – in time made inroads in the white North as well. Gallagher observes that the Lost Cause “flourished in films for nearly half a century before losing ground, and eventually supremacy, to the Emancipation and Reconciliation Causes.” Classic films like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939) most obviously embraced Lost Cause themes and made Civil War cinema synonymous with white southern exceptionalism and heroism in battle and on the homefront. Occasional anti-war films and pictures celebrating the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln somewhat loosened the grip of the Lost Cause on the silver screen. But Gallagher recognized the 1989 film Glory – portraying the contributions of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment that fought for the Union – as the turning point that “ushered Emancipation to center stage.” Since then, he argues, “the Lost Cause has steadily receded” in the face of films [End Page 29] stressing personal freedom and autonomy, as well as America’s postwar rise as a global power.
Most scholarship charting the trajectory of Civil War cinema stops with the first decade of the twenty-first century, a few years before the sesquicentennial produced the expected spate of new films about the conflict. Upon arrival, these pictures continued to roll back Lost Cause themes, mirroring the widespread if controversial efforts, in real-world America, to dislodge Confederate flags and statuary from public spaces. Yet even while new Civil War films celebrated emancipation and personal liberty, slavery usually appeared therein as an abstraction rather than as a vile institution that tormented and oppressed millions of black Americans. Dominated by white characters and told from their perspectives, Civil War cinema 150 years after Appomattox still bore a strong family resemblance to earlier entries in the genre, confirming Barrett’s conclusion that “the cinematic construction of the American Civil War is, broadly speaking, aimed at the white audience of America, produced to teach the nation about its [majority] heritage and its identity.”
Even Lincoln (2012), the most...